Why Certain Cars Survive While Others Don't

Illustration for article titled Why Certain Cars Survive While Others Don't

Any car more than a couple of decades old that’s still on the road has likely been the recipient of some serious, time-consuming repair work. This means that, at some point, a previous owner decided the car was worthy of being kept alive. But what is it about certain cars that makes them deserving of a second chance, while others go straight to the scrapper?


There are so many older cars that you just never find on the road anymore—not because they were poorly designed, but because, for whatever reason, their original owners decided they weren’t worth saving. Small Chevys from the ’90s like the Beretta and Lumina, ’90 Saturn SLs, Buick Roadmasters and pretty much any ‘80s Mitsubishi with a Dodge badge on the front—hell, a lot of Japanese cars from the ‘80s, especially stuff everyone drove like Accords and Corollas.

Understanding why these cars get junked, while others continue their duty on America’s roadways is fairly complex, and though the decision usually includes a monetary component, the decision largely is an emotional one.

Illustration for article titled Why Certain Cars Survive While Others Don't

My coworker Raphael Orlove once junked a Lexus ES300 after its motor blew. It was a decision that he says he made in part, because he lives in New York and already had a car, and also because he didn’t want to spend lots of money fixing a beater that he’d bought for only $600.

These are logical reasons, but they’re not the only things that led Raph to send his big Lexus to the junkyard in the sky—he ultimately got rid of it because it didn’t have enough soul.

To be sure, a five-speed Lexus ES300 is rare and awesome, but imagine if Raph’s Lexus had been a classic first-gen RX-7; I bet he’d have found another motor for it instead of junking it, and not because the RX-7 is rare or fast or any more reliable than the Lexus, it’s just got that something. It has that unquantifiable draw that would making the idea of junking it just feel wrong. The Lexus just wasn’t special enough.


Even the Lexus was a tough decision, though, as Raph admits he was “genuinely tempted to rescue the thing anyway.” But I bet you if that Lexus had had just a drop more character, it’d still be on the road today.

To be sure, cost and ease of maintenance are a big deal. If a car is shitty enough and expensive enough to maintain, even a whole hell of a lot of character can’t save it. But some vehicles just have so much character, owners are willing to go through hell to keep them going (I know this firsthand.)


What I’m getting at is that survival of the fittest in the car world doesn’t necessarily mean that the toughest, most attractive, or best-built live on—what matters most is character. Character is survivability.

Maybe you can help me figure it out: why do you think certain cars survive while others perish from the earth?

Sr. Tech Editor, Jalopnik. Owner of far too many Jeeps (Including a Jeep Comanche). Follow my instagram (@davidntracy). Always interested in hearing from engineers—email me.



My Bronco’s been on the road just about 23 years with nothing but regular maintenance (knock on wood). Just felt like bragging about my reliable old shitbox.